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Archbishop Carlson: Christ ‘welcomes and challenges’ those wrestling with gender identity

A 12-page reflection by the archbishop of Saint Louis notes that people who experience gender dysphoria are “uniquely vulnerable” and must be treated with care and compassion, but also notes that the Church has a duty to teach and affirm a Christian anthropology.

The Most Reverend Robert J. Carlson, Archbishop of St. Louis (Image: archstl.org)

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 04:34 pm (CNA).- Christ draws close with love and compassion, as well as a challenge, for people who experience discord between their gender identity and their biological sex, Archbishop Robert Carlson of Saint Louis said in a reflection dated June 1.

“If you’re uncomfortable with your biological sex, or if you consider yourself as having a gender identity at odds with your biological sex, here’s the first thing I want you to know: God loves you. He loves you right where you are. He has a plan for you,” Carlson said.

“We are beloved sons and daughters of God in our best and worst moments. And when Jesus comes to us with a word of compassion, he always comes with a word of challenge too,” he added. “Yes, he loves us where we are; that doesn’t mean he simply affirms or celebrates where we are.”

The 12-page reflection notes that people who experience gender dysphoria are “uniquely vulnerable” and must be treated with care and compassion. The archbishop also notes that the Church has a duty to teach and affirm a Christian anthropology, which sees the unity of gender identity and biological sex as the path to human flourishing and, ultimately, to heaven.

“God made us male and female. God also made us as a union of body and soul. God has a purpose and a plan in giving us the male or female body we have,” the archbishop noted.

Carlson said he was inspired to write this reflection after a January 2020 visit with Pope Francis and the bishops of his region. During the visit, Pope Francis encouraged the bishops to address the issue of transgender theory, or gender ideology, with the Catholics in their dioceses.

Carlson is one of a small but increasing number of Catholic bishops and Catholic leaders in the U.S. who have issued statements on gender ideology, as well as guidelines for people with gender dysphoria who are participants in diocesan institutions or events. The Vatican has also recently issued recent documents on the subject, including a book released in June by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, as well as the 2019 document Male and Female He Created Them, issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Carlson stated that his reflection did not offer a “comprehensive treatment” of the problem, but rather an addressing of a few of its “principal aspects.”

The archbishop said he wanted his reflection to begin and end with thoughts of compassion and care for people who experience transgender dysphoria, which he noted is a condition that puts people “at risk for a whole series of poor health outcomes. They experience higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, and have a much higher rate of suicide attempts than the general population. They are uniquely vulnerable.”

People with gender dysphoria are experiencing hurt, the bishop said. And whether people who believe their gender does not match their biological sex are making the choice freely or feel that it is a condition they experience not of their free will, Christ draws close to those experiencing hurt, he noted.

Some examples of Christ drawing close to hurting people from the Gospels which Carlson pointed to included Zaccheus the tax collector, who is visited by Christ in his home, and the woman with a haemorrhage, who was healed by Christ with a touch of his cloak because of her faith.

“Whether we’re talking about sins we have freely chosen or conditions we have not the Gospels make it very clear: whatever our hurt is, Jesus came for the hurt. He doesn’t draw away there, he draws closer.”

But Christ also challenges people to live according to God’s plan, Carlson noted.

“When the Rich Young Man came to ask about eternal life Jesus both welcomed him and challenged him. He does so repeatedly with various people he encounters in the Gospels. We have to expect him to do the same with us. The welcome and the challenge are both expressions of his love,” Carlson said.

In this Gospel story, a rich young man approaches Christ and asks what he must to do to have eternal life. Christ tells him to follow the commandments, to sell all that he has to the poor, and to follow him. The rich young man “went away sad, for he had many possessions”.

“Do you ever wonder if he came back? I think part of the reason we never hear is that the ultimate point of the story isn’t what happened to him. The point is: I am the Rich Young Man, Jesus asks something of me, and I have to decide how to respond. I can walk away sad, or I can embrace his challenge,” the archbishop said.

The challenge for people with gender dysphoria, then, is to live according to God’s plan for sexuality, which does not separate gender from sex, Carlson noted.

“Based on the unity of the human person, the basic challenge on this matter is articulated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it says: ‘Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.’ Long before gender ideology was a cultural topic, the Catechism had already named the central issue: this is a question of reconciling ourselves to the physical facts of sexual identity, not trying to change the facts according to how we think and feel,” he said.

This does not mean that one must live according to rigid stereotypes, he noted.

“How we live our masculine and feminine identity is certainly diverse, and there needs to be room for that. There’s a wide variety of personalities, and they don’t always fit gender-stereotypes. But that doesn’t mean being male or female is negotiable, or that sex and gender can be separated. Being male or female is written into every cell of our body, and is part of the body-soul unity that we are.”

A Catholic understanding of anthropology maintains this unity in the person, Carlson noted, including unity between sex and gender.

“The Catholic understanding of the human person holds that sex and gender cannot be separated, and that there are limits to how we should manipulate our bodies. According to the Catholic understanding there is, and is meant to be, a profound unity in the human person: ‘In fact it is from [their] sex that the human person receives the characteristics which, on the biological, psychological and spiritual levels, make that person a man or a woman, and thereby largely condition his or her progress towards maturity and insertion into society,’” he said, referencing Persona humana, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1975 declaration on certain questions concerning sexual ethics.

In order for human beings to experience true freedom, the Church teaches that humans must both be able to freely choose, and freely choose what is good.

“We can all name examples of people freely choosing something that’s bad for them and bad for others. Freedom is perfected in the combination of choosing freely and choosing the good,” he said.

“A simple analogy comes from playing a musical instrument. You don’t have more freedom simply because you’ve never had lessons. You’re most free to make beautiful music when you’ve been trained and learned discipline. The same is true for excellence in human living.”

In practical applications of this teaching, Carlson said that people with gender dysphoria must be welcomed into Catholic institutions and events in the archdiocese, but with the understanding that the unity of their gender and sex will be respected, including use of pronouns, as well as restrooms and locker rooms, that match their biological sex, “thereby affording our bodies the healthy modesty and dignity deserved under such circumstances.”

“Those who experience discordance with their biological sex should not be denied admission to Catholic schools or participation in Archdiocesan or Parish events as long as they agree to abide by these guidelines,” he added. “It’s important that we be willing to help people in their struggles and questions. Our solution can’t be to abandon them, and only welcome them after they’ve resolved their questions on their own. We want to be with people, and we need to be there for them and with them in the midst of their questions and struggles.”

In his reflection, Carlson also draws directly from the words of Pope Francis, who has numerous times spoken or written about the problem of gender ideology.

In his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis wrote that accepting one’s biological sex as a gift from God and as the foundation for one’s identity was key to a “geniune human ecology.”

“The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology,”  Francis wrote.

“Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it,” the pope added.

In the end of his reflection, Carlson noted that the Church and her members must always speak the truth about gender and sex with “charity and clarity.” He noted that the Church must always reject violence and unjust discrimination toward people with gender dysphoria, and that they must be treated as “brothers and sisters.” He also added that the Church must be there to care for people who are hurting after choosing medical or hormonal gender interventions, in the same way that the Church offers care to women who are hurting after an abortion.

“As we have experienced the merciful love of Jesus, let’s bring that merciful love to the world,” he concluded. “And let’s remember that his love always has two parts: compassion, and the challenging truth about God’s plan. If we lack either – the compassion or the challenge – our love isn’t fully Christian.”


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12 Comments

  1. Dear Bishop Carlson: “And God created them male and female.” I think, bishop, it’s time to step away from Oz; it’s clear you’re not in Kansas anymore.

    • Deacon Edward, did you even read what Archbishop Carlson wrote? I’m not sure what your point is? He is clearly encouraging those with gender dysphoria to do the difficult work of embracing the gender they are born with and calling the faithful, including you, to love them, just as Christ loved (and continues to love) the many sinners he encounters. To counter quote your Bible reference, “Let those without sin cast the first stone.”

  2. A surely indeliberate and yet unfortunate choice of words: “’God made us male and female. God also made us as a union of body and soul. God has a purpose and a plan in giving us the male or female body we HAVE,’” the archbishop noted.”

    The objectivized and potentially Manichean body we “have”, or instead the fully integral body (the given “union”) we “ARE(!)”? This is the reality (from the “beginning”) that confounds the entire fallen world of appropriation, and possessiveness (possession!), and the abortive “my body”= my “choice”.

  3. Thank you for this. I am a “detransitioned” person, who believed I was transgender for a period of time and made permanent changes to my body because of it.
    I came to believe such due to long-term exposure to the postmodern ideology of gender. The theory sounded liberating, and soon enough, it seemed to describe my own experiences.
    We need to address this as a contagious ideology. So many young people are going along with the trend because of their philosophical or political beliefs about transgender. “If you’re not happy with the expectations placed upon you as a boy/girl, that means you are not really a boy/girl!” is the teaching, and it’s clearly illogical and dangerous… but frankly, it can feel compelling to those of us who are awkward or misunderstood, and angry or confused by rejection. After all, who is 100% happy with all of the social expectations placed upon their gender, especially in such a broken world? Wouldn’t it be nice if these expectations simply didn’t apply, because you aren’t that gender anyway? Wouldn’t that explain everything?
    Some people do have a neurological condition which gives them the sensation of “wrong body.” That’s a different issue. From what I’ve seen after over a decade participating in the queer community, 90+% of young “trans” people these days identify as trans because they’ve adopted the the new postmodern theory about gender, not because of an innate sensation.
    Even after I started to notice the logical problems with the theory, the sexist implications of its attack on women’s rights, and the social coersion of young people with psychological or neurological differences, I continued to advocate for queer ideology for two more years. It had been hammered into me that the only appropriate response to “gender identity” is to validate, validate, validate.
    (The slightest wavering, anything less than full throated and aggressive validation, carries the risk of being labeled as an ignorant bigoted scum deserving of a beating, or a burning. They would regularly wax poetic about burning anyone who fails to validate on demand. Yes, burning.)
    It was terrifying for me, from within that community and having given so many years to it, to come to see things differently. It was terrifying to walk away.
    I can compare it to what I imagine it would be like to leave a powerful cult.
    For all its trumpeting about individualism and spectrums, queer ideology is deeply opposed to human wholeness and uniqueness. In all those years of queer community, I had never been told that it’s okay to be uniquely oneself, to honor one’s body, to let go of proving one’s self-importance, to simply be still. Now I know: just because I am “not like others” of my sex, doesn’t mean I am not my sex. We can each be who we are made to be.
    I hope the Church welcomes gender-variant and gender-questioning people. Teach us to appreciate our bodies and our uniqueness, show us that there is not just one way to be a member of our sex, affirm that we don’t have to be just like all the others. Help us find meaning in being born at this point in history, help us learn to use this strange struggle to bless others and praise God. This is the kind of “validation” which soothes the anxiety of obsessive/compulsive gender rumination, and can set the stage for healing and acceptance and truth.
    I hope this helps someone who reads this today.

    • I only wish that the good bishop had consulted you before launching into a 17 page document on transgenderism. You bring an awful lot of common sense to a culturally-driven issue whose victims are those who in the currently mad world of ours are left quite vulnerable.

    • Thank you for giving us your first hand knowledge on this modern day phenomenon. It helped me reading your story because I’m struggling with my son emerging himself into the world of transgenderism. He’s already been taking hormones and passes himself as a woman. I can’t speak to him about my dissatisfaction and disappointment because he threatened to speak to me if I try to dissuade him in his choices. I only have daily prayer to hope for a conversion one day. Your story has given me hope that it is possible.

    • M, you’ve walked the walk and talked the talk. I am in no position to argue that queers, including TGs may be culturally imposed upon. However, my weak argument to support them, which has nothing to do with religious dogma, that is how would one choose a lifestyle where they are scorned and ostracized by a wider society? Moreover, why would a TG person choose to endure major surgery only to free their anguish.
      God bless you.

  4. Thank you for the good , truthful perspective of this article , on love as desiring what is true and good and holy and beautiful , for the here and hereafter…..
    compassion , from The Lord who came to destroy the works of the devil , who could see straight through , into the young man’s heart , who likely fell for the lie that life is only about money and the carnal pleasures of this world , with its hatred for the true love of responsibility to see the dignity of life , in the poor and the little as well .
    The words of the Holy Father , about the mafia mindset in cruelty , to hire the hit men , to destroy what seems to stand in The Way – thus the cloud of the larvae from hell that are let out when the seals that keep them in are broken by the mafia cruelty !
    The young , in turn , try to hire own mafia , through so called ‘medical care ‘ .

    Body as sacred , meant for heaven , thank God that the Rosary devotion , Feast of Assumption , all to help us to take in that truth more deeply and the greater importance given to the various deliverance ministries too , to help all to work with The King , The Only One who holds The Key , to the riches of holiness , the true wealth and identity that all are searching for .
    Sacred Heart of The Lord , Immaculate Heart of Mary , Chaste Heart of St.Joseph ,
    St.Dominick ,St. Gabriel and all who are of The Kingdom , pray for us all .

  5. Well….what about those of the gay and trans community who decidedly are NOT struggling and are thoroughly convinced (along with their allies in government, entertainment, media and corporate America) that embracing such an identity, along with associated sexual activity, is perfectly “normal” if even for most “different”? Further, what of these folks who are regulars in our Catholic parishes? Makes it a little more complicated, doesn’t it?

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